Article first published in The House by Jon Ashmore on 8 January 2016.
Rory Stewart has certainly not had the easiest of times lately.
While the rest of us were tucking into turkey, the Environment Minister was crossing the country helping co-ordinate the response to the massive floods in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria.
We meet on the first day since Parliament returned for the New Year, but the former soldier and diplomat is not feeling overly refreshed.
“I didn’t have Christmas, so I haven’t had any time off since Parliament broke, so my wife and baby went away and I didn’t see them for eight days,” he says.
The Government has also come under sustained attack over its response, with Jeremy Corbyn using all of his questions at the first PMQs of the year to ask about flooding.
Although Stewart says residents were understandably upset at the “horrendous experience” of being flooded, he insists he did not encounter particular hostility towards the Government over the response effort.
“Generally, in my experience at least – I didn’t catch everybody – people were relatively grateful at the speed of the response. I mean, we got the military out in Carlisle evacuating houses before the flooding started, we had about 85% of our Environment Agency assets up in the north before the second round of flooding, we had fire and rescue, we had a much more coordinated response from lifeboats, form Mountain Rescue.
“So, I think most of the communities that I went to, from Cockermouth right the way through to the Calder Valley and York were generally quite impressed, I thought, with their sense of the emergency response.”
While a lot of work is being done on how to contain future floods, Stewart is cautious about overstating how easily future floods can be dealt with.
Measures such as planting trees, restoring peat bogs and allowing rivers to meander more “can make a difference” he says, but is also keen to stress that the science of flooding is not necessarily settled.
“I have a gut instinct that we need to be doing much more mitigation upstream – tree planting, peat bogs, meandering rivers – but the science on that is evolving and developing all the time and getting the latest academic research on that and really pinpointing exactly what the academic research is going to be is very challenging.”
As a former chair of the Defence Committee, it might have been assumed that Stewart would head to the MoD for his first ministerial post.
However he is also the MP for England’s largest, most rural seat and is famously a lover of the great outdoors, so it’s not entirely a surprise that he is enjoying life at Defra.
Despite what has been a very testing period for the department, he says his new role is “incredibly exciting”, especially in the sheer range of areas for which he is responsible, from water quality to national parks to the UK’s role in combating the illegal wildlife trade.
The one drawback about being given a job which is all about the natural environment is that, ironically, he no longer has time for the epic walks he so enjoys.
As well as writing a book about his walk across Afghanistan, Stewart also made a point of walking across his Cumbrian constituency, one of the largest in England.
“Unfortunately now that I’m a minister that has gone out of the window. I hope there will be time for walking later if I don’t go completely bonkers,” he jokes.
In the meantime he is learning the ropes as a junior minister, a role he took on after May’s general election.
While some of his Tory colleagues are not shy about criticising their officials, Stewart is glowing in his praise.
“The chief executives of the National Parks, the Forestry Commission and stuff, these kind of people are really impressive, energetic people and it’s a real pleasure going around the country seeing what they’re doing and often what they’re doing basically very independently, without too much government interference.”
For someone of such obvious intellectual ability, he seems to have very little ego when it comes to deferring to the experts.
He is also refreshingly willing to not just admit, but embrace the times when there are no clear answers – not always an obvious trait in frontline politicians.
“One of the real delights in this job is that environment is, in the end, about knowledge, it’s about science, it’s about people who know a lot about newts or know a lot about lions or know a lot about a particular type of tree or know a lot about a particular type of tree.
“One of the real delights in public policy is trying to harness that knowledge and sometimes also harness the uncertainties of that knowledge. So harness the moments where we realise we don’t always know as much as we think we do. “
By way of an example, he tells me about that most noble of British beasts, the hedgehog.
“It’s striking, I was working on hedgehogs recently, there’s a lot of stuff we don’t even know about hedgehogs, a million of them in Britain. We don’t really understand why they self-anoint, they throw saliva back over their backs.
“Now, if we don’t really know that about hedgehogs, our lack of knowledge about other more obscure species is far more extreme.”
This sense of caution partly derives from the time he spent working in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan before entering Parliament in 2010.
Even when speaking about these countries, he is remarkably modest about the limits of his expertise.
“I guess the first thing that I’ve learnt is that the fundamental lesson has to be humility, that I’ve spent a few years living in Iraq and Afghanistan and working in those countries and teaching about those countries but what I think I’ve picked up through that is essentially how little I know and how many of the things that I assumed about Iraq and Afghanistan ten, 15 years ago, were wrong.
“I suppose what I’ve taken from that, which applies also to working with science in Defra is that sense of caution and prudence about how much we really know about what we’re doing.”
He also sees parallels between extreme weather and the rise of extremist groups such as Islamic State.
“There’s a huge, particularly in very unstable situations and civil wars, there’s a far bigger role for luck or fortune or chance in the development of these organisations, they’re not things that can be fully predicted. They are, ironically, more chaotic, more like weather systems than they are like the kind of operation of politics in Britain – and even, of course, in Britain politics can surprise us.”
That comes across as something of an understatement given the tumultuous last 12 months in Westminster.
At the same time it seems that the party political game does not really interest Stewart nearly so much as the intellectual and administrative challenges of public policy.
Even when discussing Jeremy Corbyn, he seems more curious than scornful of the Labour leader and the word he deploys to describe him is “interesting”.
“It’s a very interesting challenge, I mean clearly Jeremy Corbyn appeals to a great number of young Labour party voters. I had lunch with Tam Dalyell two days ago, who said to me he voted for Jeremy Corbyn, a great fan of Jeremy Corbyn, likes him very much as a person. But Tam and Jeremy represent a very particularly fringe of the Labour party, [with] particular views on international affairs.
“Actually, one of the interesting things about Jeremy Corbyn is oddly, I saw a great deal of him because my sense is his heart is really with foreign affairs and defence, that’s what he actually is most interested in.
“That’s where I used to see him in the House of Commons because I used to do a lot of Foreign Affairs and Defence debates and he was always there, always engaging in those debates.”
That Stewart would lunch with a Corbynite veteran of the Labour back benches might seem surprising, but then he and Dalyell have a fair deal in common.
Both are of aristocratic Scottish heritage, old Etonians and implacably committed to preserving the union.
He did his own little bit for Anglo-Scottish relations in the run up to the 2014 referendum, founding Hands Across the Border, a project to build a large stone cairn on the border between the two countries at Gretna.
Stewart is acutely aware of how precarious the United Kingdom is, with the SNP regularly threatening to call a second vote on independence.
“We have to keep fighting for that positive vision, we can’t take that for granted, we can’t assume as you might have done in the 1930s and 1940s that people will just take it as read that Britain is a bigger, more exciting, more expansive project.“
Part of that is explaining to young Scots of a progressive bent that many of the reforms they hold dear emanated from England.
“Feminism, the environmental movement, the trade union movement, a lot of these things were driven as much from England as they were from Scotland and it’s not fair to your history or your identity to create a more narrow, reductive version of yourself,” he says.
As with everything we discuss, Stewart talks about Scotland with great vigour and enthusiasm, none of which seems feigned.
Unfortunately he has to rush off for an urgent statement on flooding in the Commons, but there’s just time for one more crucial question – what has become of the film of his life that Hollywood star Brad Pitt was apparently working on?
”That has, as far as I’m aware he’s now not going to make that because I think becoming a Tory MP is not a great ending to a film.”